This interview for the Filmmaker Toolkit podcast took place in April 2023, before the writers’ strike started.
The sum total of “Mrs. Davis” and the genres and tones in which it plays couldn’t fill a whale’s belly, but it comes damn close. It is, in short, a nun’s (Betty Gilpin) quest to find the holy grail – Yes, That Holy grail – between heists and conspiracies and wizards of Reno because an all-powerful AI told her it would shut down if she succeeded. This isn’t even getting into the Jesus dilemma – yeah, That Jesus — who has a very special relationship with Sister Simone.
Balancing the Peacock series required a solid understanding of the many sandboxes in which “Mrs. Davis” was ringing, both tonally and visually. If there was a place between mindless hijinks and profound questions about our relationship with our creators, “Mrs. Davis” she wanted to find him.
But it’s often through the show’s most farcical scenes that it insinuates its most poignant relationships and dilemmas between characters. Case in point, the Grail’s ultimate location in the belly of a whale, which swallows Simone and doubles as a sort of spiritual cavern where she meets a very important mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and reevaluates all of her relationships.
“All the classifications or, you know, loglines that are thrown around on this show — it’s research, it’s the holy grail, it’s nun versus AI, it’s kind of this backdoor examination of female relationships and female dynamics — specifically, ( the relationships between) mother and daughters became of great interest to us,” series co-creator Tara Hernandez told IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast.
There is so much encapsulated in the philosophical ideas that the show plays with (free will versus fate, the power of technology and religion to warp society by creating an individually tangible good, the slow nervous breakdown some men need to take off his cowboy boots, metaphorically speaking) that Hernandez and co-creator Damon Lindelof sought a visual world that could be equally amusingly contradictory.
“Owen Harris was available (to direct the pilot) and both Damon and I were huge fans of ‘Black Mirror,’ where he filmed two of my favorite episodes, ‘Striking Vipers’ and ‘San Junipero,'” Hernandez said. “The worlds he created in those episodes are somehow timeless – or very current, as far as the ’80s aesthetic goes – but they feel like five minutes in the future and decades away. I think we both thought, from an aesthetic point of view, it was so incredibly interesting.
Hernandez and Lindelof also encouraged Harris and the other series directors to embrace a myriad of visual influences as they developed a heightened idea of the American West in which Simone and her childhood sweetheart Wiley (Jake McDorman) set out to destroy Mrs. Davis.
The show’s influences included “the overlapping Venn diagram of Quentin Tarantino’s writing and ‘Looney Tunes’ and ‘Monty Python’ (with) this sort of idea of insanity and unpredictability,” Lindelof told IndieWire. (Editor’s note: That interview took place before excerpts from Maureen Ryan were published Burn itwhich denounces, among other things, a toxic culture in the “Lost“writers room run by Lindelof and Carlton Cuse.)
“And if you just look into Tarantino’s circle of that Venn diagram, there’s also a level of exaggerated violence. So we used to talk a lot about the idea of, like, ‘There’s a way to do this sword fight in the opening of the show, which is ultimately going to turn out to be a commercial, where you’re expected to take the sword seriously. violence,’” Lindelof said. But the show has to do the trick and do the job so that the reveal feels earned, which meant choreographing a certain type of emphasis and absurdity into the “serious” version of the fight – something that felt just a little weird, but which the the public fails to understand well.
“This can be a little creepy because you don’t know what the tone is. But for us, that’s kind of the bandwidth that life is broadcasting on. This is, to me, the most exciting narrative space, where you enter the realm of the indescribable and say you just have to watch it,” Lindelof said.
“I think from the jump we’ve been pushing the line, or actively jumping it,” Hernandez said of the whale sequence in particular and the “Mrs. Davis” ethos in general. The constant forward momentum of finding new ways to connect incidents wilder and seemingly orderly with mundane and all-too-human motivations (not to mention the motivations of Buffalo Wild Wings) drives “Mrs. Davis.” But the fact that there is a connection, expressed in heightened imagery before the characters and audience realize it, makes the show’s surprises significant.
“The show was kind of a stealth, always picking a journey, but trolling it at the same time. It’s a delicate balance. I’m not sure we got it right, but boy, was it fun up there on the wire” Lindelof said.